Tunisian local elections do not mark the end of democratization process

Mon 15 May 2017

Tunisian local elections do not mark the end of democratization process

After years of deadline extension, Chafik Sarsar, the head of the Higher Independent Elections Authority (ISIE), announced that the first municipal elections since the Jasmin revolution will take place on the 17th of December. Several parties first asked it to be postponed until 2018, after the last deadline of March 2017 had passed. While November 23rd was also mentioned, the date which eventually made it was the 17th of December. This is no ordinary compromise in between November 2017 and the start of 2018, but a very symbolic date: on the 17th of December 2011, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and thereby started the Arab uprisings, ousting the regime of Ben Ali from Tunisia.

Too high hopes

The delay in organising local elections is caused by a disagreement on the electoral system, and contributed to a significant deterioration of Tunisian living conditions, including poor infrastructure and problems with for example garbage collection. At the end of last month, the death of a six-year-old due to Hepatitis A led to a major strike in the town of Majel Bel Abbes. Municipal elections are a next step in the democratization process of Tunisia, but would also contribute to more a more effective local governance. There are still many challenges to overcome, and the symbolic date might prove that expectations are too high. In a very short time period, the government has to finalize the electoral system: Create the electoral districts, remove the non-political system which is now in place, and approve the legal structure which regulates the role of local officials. The symbolic date and pressing issues with living conditions also suggest that local elections would solve their current problems. However, it might take years before effective local government can address those issues.

The first unpleasant surprise has already presented itself. Chafik Sarsar, who also announced the municipal elections, has stepped down on the 9th of May. Two other prominent members of the ISIE, vice-president Mourad Moalhi and member Lamia Zargouni have followed Sarsar’s example. Sarsar stated that he felt ‘forced to stepdown’, which implicates that he felt he was unable to honour his oath to guarantee free and transparent elections. Internal conflict between the council, the members and the board of the ISIE, enhanced by a change in the council in February, seem to be the motive for Sarsiks withdrawal.

Technocratic governance depoliticizes

Since the provisional government under Béji Caïd Essebsi, the municipalities have been governed by special delegations. These delegations are technocratic and not affiliated to any party. They resemble a tendency in Tunisian politics after the uprising: The new political situation in Tunisia was one in which the NCA was the only democratically elected institution in post–Ben Ali’s Tunisia: Before the Constitution was finalized, Tunisia was led by a technocratic government. In 2014, political polarization led the Ennahda-led government to hand power over to a technocratic government until the next elections. Also the current government, led by secular Nidaa Tounes and Islamic Ennahda, while not officially technocratic, has aimed to make technical instead of politically motivated decisions. Last month a ‘non-ideological’ party has been set up by former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa.

On both the national and local level this depoliticizing is not reducing political polarization, but rather enforcing it. One of the reasons that a new non-ideological party was created, is that the current government parties find themselves in a deadlock due to their ideological differences. By making technical decisions, they avoid the political discussion in which they would have to compromise. This has a severe effect on the population, of which only 12 percent trust political parties. Since the revolution, the voter participation has also declined. This is especially true for the Tunisian youth, which is suffering from high youth unemployment.

This tendency is reflected on the local level. While local authorities representing the old regime were ousted, newly installed delegations faced reduced credibility and legitimacy: They were not democratically elected, but nominated ad-hoc. As a result, local civil society actors kept opposing the delegations, who in turn felt unable to make politicized statements and decisions, similar to the technocratic government on national level. Also, as national politicians did not prioritize local democracy development or new systems, local authorities had very little means to keep doing what they were supposed to do: collecting taxes, or collecting garbage. A last effect is that people lose interest in politics, both on local and national level: The connection between the different levels is not easily made.\

Postponement again?

Now Sarsar and his colleagues stepped down, there is a renewed call for postponing the municipal elections. The procedure to replace the three members of the ISIE takes a long time because it has very specific requirements. Many civil society actors state, including the Mourakiboun network of elections monitors, stated that it is technically not possible to hold elections on 17 December. To let go of this particular date might reduce too high hopes, but local elections are urgently needed in order to prevent Tunisian citizens from losing faith in politics and democratization all together.

Sources: Middle East Journal, Huffington Post Maghreb 1, Huffington Post Maghreb 2, La Croix, Carnegie Endowment